Wagtail Tales of Japan and their parallels elsewhere

The Ainu of Japan have a tale of creation (among many versions) involving the wagtail:

In one version the creator deity sends down a water wagtail to create habitable land in the watery world below. The little bird fluttered over the waters, splashing water aside and then he packed patches of the earth firm by stomping them with his feet and beating them with his tail. In this way islands where the Ainu were later to live were raised to float upon the ocean. Source: “A Dictionary of Creation Myths” – “Ainu Creation” Leeming, David Adams; Leeming, Margaret Adams (2009).  Oxford University Press. [See also Barbara C. Sproul’s (1979). Primal Myths. HarperOne HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 978-0-06-067501-1].

In another more detailed version (Batchelor), the wagtail takes on a Cupid-like role:

CHAPTER VII. 

Cupid and the Hero Okikurumi. 

The water- wagtail as Cupid — He instructs husbands and wives in their conjugal duties — Legend of Okikurumi in lov — Yoshitsune not worshipped — The shrine at Piratori. 

If the ancient Greeks and Latins had their Cupid, the Ainu also are human enough to have theirs. 
But, instead of being a saucy, winged, chubby child, with a malicious smile and cunning twinkling eyes, he appears in this case with wings indeed, but the wings of a bird. He is, in fact, no other than the water- wagtail. 

It has already been shown elsewhere that, by one account, this bird is supposed to have brought the earth out of chaos, and by another to have simply made rough places plain and level. We are now about to learn that he first taught the ancestors of the Ainu race their duties to each other as husbands and wives, and that he has been 
known to act as Cupid in watching over love-stricken people. I find that some young Ainu men keejj the skins and skeletons of these birds in boxes, as love charms, carefully wrapped up in 171(70 shavings. These they sometimes worship, especially if their possessors are in love or want a wife. The legend recounting this is as follows : — 

' The water-wagtail is called Ochiu-cJiiri by some people, and this means the " bird of passion" or "desire." He is thus named because he has strong sensual desires. After God had created human beings and placed them in the world, the water-wagtail came to them, and first taught them their duties to one another as husbands and wives.
It is through his kindly offices of instruction that men increased and multiplied in the world. He is known to be a good charm, and therefore to be highly prized. Once upon a time a man killed one of these birds, and used the body as a charm. It was soon observed that its possessor was becoming very lustful, and was continually getting into all kinds of trouble. He had to pay a great many fines for his misdeeds. This kind of thing lasted just six years. After that time had elapsed he repented, and completely turned over a new leaf, and grew very rich indeed. This was all owing to his possessing a water-wagtail as a charm. 
Whoever, therefore, keeps this kind of fetish must expect to be very wicked for the space of six years ; but after that time he may, by exercising care, repent and grow rich.' 

In the first chapter of this book, which was on the subject of the origin of the Ainu, we had occasion to discuss an ancient hero named Okikurumi. 
It was there shown that in all probability this person was no other than the Japanese Yoshitsune, who is said to have come to Yezo and married an Ainu damsel. The following legend shows him to have been really in love with his bride, and the purpose of it appears to be to teach young lovers never to despair, even though they cannot always obtain the object of their affections, and to show young men that they ought never to look too much after the softer sex. It also shows the water- wagtail acting in his capacity of Cupid.
The Water-Wagtail a Cupid.
Ainu Man abuut to Drink.
' The great Okikurumi fell deeply in love ; he became very ill, yea, exceedingly love-sick ; he lost his appetite and bodily strength ; he lay down in his hut in sullen despair, and would eat neither good food nor bad ; he was, in short, ready to die of love. And, mark you, all this happened through taking just one glance at a beautiful woman. " Dear, dear!" says the legend, "how badly he felt!"
Therefore let the young beware. 

' But Okikurumi was cured of his dangerous malady, A little bird, the water-wagtail, flew to the cause of this affliction — the object of his affections. Word was brought to her of his deep-seated love and critical condition. The pretty little bird wagged his tail, and whispered in the lady's ear that if Okikurumi died the soul of Ainu-land would also depart. Therefore the bird begged her to have mercy upon poor Okikurumi for the sake of Ainu-land. The intercession was successful. An unreal, unsubstantial woman was made in the likeness of the beauty with whom Okikurumi had been smitten. 
She was brought to his hut, and forthwith proceeded to arrange the mats, furniture and ornaments. 
Okikurumi took a sly glance at her through his sleeve ; he was encouraged ; he got up, rejoiced, ate food, was revived, and felt strong again. This done, the lady took her departure ; she was not. 
What then did Okikurumi do ? Why, he saw that he had been deceived in the woman, and, as there was nothing to be done, nothing to be said, he got ,well again, like a sensible man.'
Okikurumi in Love.
The following is the explanation of the legend : — ' The goddess {i.e. the beautiful maiden) felt lonely, and gazed upon the inside and surveyed the outside of the hut. She went out, and behold ! the clouds were floating and waving about in beautiful terraces upon the horizon of Ainu-land. Yes, that is what she saw ; so she returned into the hut back- wards and took down her needlework.' (By this we are taught how it happened that Okikurumi first caught sight of this beautiful woman with whom he fell in love. She had been sitting in the hut, and now felt a little lonesome, restless, or tired. Her eyes had been wandering about from one object to another with weary solicitude. She gets up, goes outside in an aimless kind of way, and scans the horizon, which she sees Is very beautiful In its grandeur, the clouds being piled one upon another In terrace-like masses. She revives and returns into her hut. But we are told that she returns backwards. This Is a sign that she was paying great respect to someone or something out-side. The Ainu say that she was paying respect to the Ijrilliant beauties of Nature which were depicted upon the heavens ; hence she came into her hut reverently walking backwards. Now women never pray to the- heavens, indeed, they never worship any deities at all ; I therefore venture to think that she was paying her respects to Okikurumi, whom she saw outside.)
'Again, she looked to the point of her needle, and fixed her gaze upon the eye-end thereof.' 

(That is to say, she paid great attention to her work.) 

'Then came a little bird, called the water-wagtail, and sat upon the window shutter. He wagged his tail up and down, and waved it from right to left. 

' Then two chirps and three chirps came to her and touched the inside of her ears, and what she heard was this: "The mighty Okikurumi, who is governor of all Ainu-land, went out of doors for a little while, and seeing you, has fallen ill of love on your account. And though two bad fish and two good fish were placed before him for food he refused to eat." ' 

(Two good and two bad fish is merely an expression meaning that whatever food was placed before Okikurumi he could not touch it, he was so love-sick.) 

' "Now, if Okikurumi should die, the soul of Ainu-land will depart." 

' Then the little bird called water-wagtail, waving its tail, spake two words to her and said, 
" Have mercy upon us, that Okikurumi may live." 

' Thus, then, by simply looking out upon the world, Okikurumi fell so sick of love that though two bad fish and two good fish were set before him he could not eat. 

' Dear, dear, how badly he felt !
The Shrine at Piratori. 

' Therefore the form of a woman resembhng the go.ddess was made and sent down to Okikurumi. 

' The house was set in order; that woman who was sent down put things to rights. 

' Then Okikurumi looked through his sleeve, and saw the beautiful woman. He got up greatly rejoic- 
ing. He ate some food ; strength came back to his body, and — the woman was gone! 

'Okikurumi saw he had been deceived ; but there was nothing to be done and nothing to say, so he got well.' 

It has been thought by many that Okikurumi or Yoshitsune has been and is still worshipped by the Ainu, and the fact that a shrine has been set up to him at Piratori has lent colour to this idea. But that shrine is of purely Japanese manufacture, while the idol within it, which is also of Japanese make, only dates back one hundred and ten years. 
Beyond this there is nothing of antiquity about it. Indeed, no Ainu would think of offering prayer at this shrine. The very idea of such a thing would have been ridiculed by the people twenty years ago. As a matter of fact, Yoshitsune was not spoken at all well of by the Ainu when I first came to Piratori. 
It is true, indeed, that he is supposed to be the maker of some things in creation. But of what kind of objects ? The cuckoo, for example, which is looked upon as a bird of evil omen ; and snakes also, which are not pleasant creatures by any means. 

I have sometimes seen iiiao offered at the above-mentioned shrine, and on one occasion heard a semi-prayer said, which was as follows: —
' O my divine Yoshitsune, through thy divine favour I am frequently getting sake. I salute thee; I thank thee.' This can hardly be called proper prayer, and it was old Penri who said it. This old gentleman is very fond of sake, as is shown in another chapter, and this shrine used often to be the means by which he obtained it Indeed, the nickname the shrine used to be called by, a very few years ago, was ' Penri's sake trap.' 

He considered it a great joke when some Japanese appointed him keeper of the shrine, and was duly pleased and thankful.

— Source: pp. 75 – 80, of John Batchelor’s “Ainu and their Folklore” at sacred-texts.com

The wagtale features not only in the indigenous Ainu people’s creation myth, as well as in the earliest written royal chronicles of Japan, which is given special treatment in the article below:

Excerpted from Kevin Short’s*  December 12, 2013 Special to The Japan News Nature in Short / Adaptable wagtails peck out a living in the city:

“… The fields, paddies and woodlands of the countryside are home to a rich biodiversity, so I often find myself pulling over to observe and photograph a variety of flowers, insects and birds. One day, however, I encountered a bird in a most unlikely spot. I had stopped to fill up with gas. As I stepped out of the car, I noticed a small black-and-white bird with a long tail, just a few meters away. The bird completely ignored me and other customers, seemingly intent on foraging on the concrete ground around the pumps.

The bird was a wagtail, a member of a group of passerine birds classified in the genus Motacilla, distributed widely across Eurasia and Africa. Their most easily recognized common trait is a long tail, nearly as long again as the body, which they continuously flick up and down as they move across the ground. This behavior is the base for their generic English name. In Japanese they are referred to as sekirei.

About a dozen or so species of wagtail are found worldwide. Half of these have been recorded here in Japan, but only three species; the White Wagtail, or Haku-sekirei (M. alba)—the Japanese Wagtail, or Seguro-sekirei (M. grandis); and the Grey Wagtail, or Ki-sekirei (M. cinerea)—are common. The rest are rare migrants.

Both the white and Japanese wagtails are common year-round residents in the Kanto area. These two gray, black-and-white feathered species look alike at a distance, but up close can be readily distinguished by the amount of black on their face, head and back, which is noticeably greater in the Japanese wagtail (the Japanese names mean “white” and “black-backed,” respectively).  

Both these species usually prefer countryside or waterside habitats. They are primarily insectivorous, feeding on or close to the ground. Their long, thin bills are well adapted to plucking insects out of low vegetation and shallow water. Another typical foraging behavior is jumping up to snatch disturbed insects as they try to escape. Over the past several decades, however, the wagtails have dramatically expanded their range to include suburban and even hard core urban habitats.

The gas station bird was a white wagtail. For more than five minutes, I watched it pecking away at what seemed to me to be nothing more than bare concrete. I have also seen these birds foraging out on my 20th floor verandah, and even dodging dump trucks on the national highway asphalt. No matter how hard I looked, I could see nothing that might be edible.

One might easily imagine that the wagtails have somehow evolved a method for extracting nutrients from tiny pebbles of concrete, or maybe from spilt motor oil. My ornithologist friends, however, assure me that the birds are simply picking up tiny seeds or minuscule scraps of food dropped by people. By widening the scope of their diet, these adaptable critters have been able to move into new urban and suburban habitats.

Wagtails also play a small but significant role in Japanese classic mythology. According to the traditional creation myth, a pair of kami deities was dispatched from the Celestial Realm to found a new world here on earth. Arriving on a portal bridge, the male deity Izanagi stirred the primeval chaotic sea with his magical spear. Brine dripping from the spear coalesced to form the first island.

Izanagi and his mate, Izanami, then erected a pillar, around which they danced in anticipation of the task of giving birth to the land. When all was ready, however, they found that being a bit naive and inexperienced, they didn’t actually know just how a man and a woman should go about producing offspring. Fortunately, just at that crucial moment, a pair of mating wagtails happened by. Izanagi and Izanami simply watched what they were doing and tried it out for themselves. The result was the land we now call Japan.”

*Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

Comparing the Japanese wagtail myth with parallels elsewhere, we find:

  • India: To the Hindus, the wagtail was a”prophetic bird. Prophecies are made based on the direction from which the bird arrives and from the place where it alights.” Source: The Mythology Dictionary‘s entry on wagtail.
  • Australian aboriginal folktale: A Legend of the Wallaroo and the Wily-Wagtail excerpted from WJ. Thomas’ “Some Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines” (1923) via  www.sacred-texts.com
  • Egypt — The tale there appears to be of great antiquity and its prototype tale may have moved through connected to lineages through Central Asia to Japan (perhaps, via the Ba people in China?): “In Heliopolis, at least from the building of the Heliopolitan sun temple, around 2660 BC, ra, the sun and Atum were linked to the wagtail, and then the heron, or some other mythical bird with a likeness to the heron. it became known as the benu, perched on the original mound, on the benben, which in Egyptian mythology had emerged from the primeval watery chaos, and was closely linked to the original rising sun.The benu was the carrier of sunlight from the gods to mankind in the daily resurrection of the sun and in rebirth in general. The benu became an aspect of Atum was later the Ba soul aspect of Re and afterwards was linked to Osiris. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-420 BC) associated the benu on the benben with the Greek mythological Phoenix. Perpetual sunlight was carried from the gods to mankind.” Source:  Egypt, Trunk of the Tree, Volume 1 by Simson R. Najovits
  • The wagtail is also featured in Greek, African and Bornean myths:

“In Greek mythology, wagtails were seen as a gift from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the wagtail was a symbol of love. In India the wagtail is a bird of divination and bears a holy caste mark. The situation in which it appears is an omen: if it is near a lotus flower, elephants, cows, snakes or horses it is favorable; if near bones, ashes or refuse it presages evil and the gods should be placated.

Wagtails featured strongly in tribal life among the Xhosa people of South Africa in the early twentieth century. The wagtail (primarily the cape wagtail, possibly also the African pied wagtail) was widely known as “the bird of the cattle” and “the bird of good fortune.” It was held in high regard and was protected because its presence was thought to assure the increase of stock, while its call was likened to a herd boy’s whistle. The departure of cape wagtails from a region was seen as a sign that war was about to take place.

Despite their often striking display flights, the more cryptic and less approachable pipits hardly seem to have figured in myth and legend. However, young Zulu men in South Africa formerly manufactured love charms from pipits and it is interesting to note that the Xhosa people were aware of the close relationship between pipits and wagtails.

In the remote hinterland of Borneo, the Kelabit people determine their crucial rice-planting cycle by the arrival of a series of migratory bird species from far northern breeding grounds. These birds, which include the yellow wagtail, indicate the sequence of clearing, planting, bedding, weeding, protecting and harvesting the rice crop, and give their names to the months.”

Source: Focus on the Wagtail (The Secret World)

  • Borneo: In the last paragraph excerpted above, interpretation of bird sightings (bird augury/ritual) with the incoming wagtail as a signal for the sowing and harvesting of their rice crop — is observed to be a customary or ritual feature of the Kelabit peoples of Borneo, see p. 40 of “Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore” by James Alexander
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